Whether interspersed with more technical questions, or in a standalone behavioral/cultural fit interview, you’re likely to encounter behavioral interview questions at some point in the interview process.
Increasingly, companies are putting value on these interviews - because past performance is a strong indicator of future performance. Before you psych yourself out, remember that behavioral interview questions are all about you!
You already have the answers to these questions, it’s just a matter of selecting the right stories and refining your storytelling skills!
Hacking The Hiring Process is a series of deep dives into each stage of the technical hiring process, with real, actionable advice and examples you can take away and implement immediately in your next job search.
BLUF - Bottom Line Up Front
If you just want a specific piece of advice in this article, the below list details the areas we'll be going through in this piece:
- What is a Behavioral Interview Question?
- Know Your Company Values
- STAR Interview Method
- Common Behavioral Interview Questions
What is a Behavioral Interview Question?
The questions may take many different forms, but generally interviewers want to know:
- What will you be like as an employee?
- Will you deliver quality work?
- Do you have the technical skills/expertise to execute on the job?
- What are your professional interests and aspirations for growth?
- How will you fit into the company’s culture?
- What will you do to elevate the team?
The thing is, they can’t just ask you these questions.
Of course, you’re going to say “yes” if someone asks, “Will you deliver quality work?” Instead, they have to ask you something like, “Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond to ensure that quality standards were met?”That’s a behavioral interview question.
A clue that you’re being asked a behavioral interview question is when it starts with, “Tell me about a time when...” or “Give me an example of...”
These types of questions tend to be:
- Open-ended, meaning that the question requires more than a simple yes/no or factual answer.
- Hypotheticals, meaning that the question isn't looking for an example from real life, but instead a detailed answer on how you might approach a given situation.
- Looking for consistency between your words and reported actions, meaning that if you're saying you value teamwork, but your answers have you hogging all the credit, it might be a red flag.
- Trying to identify your key behaviors that sum you up as a person - i.e. what type of person are you 99% of the time?
Behavioral interview questions generally focus on past behavior and performance. By delving into your past, interviewers hope to gain a better understanding of who you are as a professional and predict how you will work at their company.
Put simply, they want to see whether you align with the company's stated values.
Speaking of values...
Know Your Company Values
As you’ll see in the interview question list below, there are MANY directions a behavioral interview can go.
Understanding a company’s values can help predict the course of their behavioral interview, allowing you to prepare accordingly.
For example, Amazon is well known for utilizing behavioral interview questions that tie back to their 16 Leadership Principles. Beyond that, interviewers are encouraged to tie candidate answers back to these values/principles in their notes and hiring decisions.
What does this look like in practice?
Their first leadership principle is "Customer Obsession". An example of a question that connects to this value could be:
Describe a situation where you went above and beyond to meet customer expectations?
A question that explores this value with a twist is:
Tell me about a time when you didn't meet customer expectations. What happened? In retrospect, would you do anything differently?
These types of questions are not just probing for alignment to company values, but also how comfortable you are with self-reflection and offering any negative information up.
Alternately, an interviewer might tie back to “customer obsession” in their interview scorecard instead, with notes like so:
Candidate demonstrated customer obsession by working after hours to ensure that the client dashboard was updated with the requested security features.
Now that you understand why a company’s values are important, how do you find them?
You can definitely use AI to help super-charge your search, but I found it to be a bit glitchy, unreliable and outdated when it came to company values.
These certainly aren't the correct ones if you had an interview at Bishop Fox (they're here, if you're interested!)
I had the best luck by simply searching a company’s website. Many companies post their values on their careers page, which is a really good indicator that they’re going to come up in the interview!
There’s a lot less when it comes to a less ubiquitious company like Rapid7, so let’s break down an approach to their values:
The first approach is to think about possible interview questions and sketch out your answers. Below are some interview questions that tie back to Rapid7’s values - try and come up with a good answer/example for each:
- Be an Advocate:
- Can you provide an example of a situation where you acted as an advocate for a customer or colleague?
- How did you demonstrate empathy and support?
- How do you ensure that customer needs and interests are at the forefront of your decision-making process?
- Can you share an experience where you went above and beyond to champion a cause or idea that you believed in?
- What was the outcome?
- Challenge Convention:
- Tell us about a time when you identified a process or approach that needed improvement.
- How did you challenge the status quo and what was the result?
- How do you encourage innovative thinking and creative problem-solving within your team or organization?
- Can you describe a situation where you took a different approach from the norm and how it positively impacted the outcome?
- Impact Together:
- Give an example of a project or initiative where you collaborated effectively with a diverse group of individuals.
- How did you ensure everyone's perspectives were heard and integrated?
- How do you build strong relationships and foster a sense of teamwork in your work environment?
- Bring You:
- Can you describe a situation where you leveraged your personal expertise or background to bring a fresh perspective to a problem or opportunity?
- How do you balance individuality and collaboration in your work style, and how does it contribute to your overall effectiveness?
- Never Done:
- Describe a situation where you demonstrated a commitment to continuous learning and personal growth.
- How do you stay updated on industry trends and new technologies?
- What steps do you take to ensure that you consistently deliver high-quality work and exceed expectations?
The second approach is to polish examples from your professional history that align with the company’s values.
This is the approach that I personally recommend, as it’s unlikely you can guess every behavioral interview question a hiring team will throw at you.
How do you comb your professional history to come up with the best answers for any behavioral interview questions?
We’ll explore that next with the help of the STAR method.
The STAR Interview Method
We mentioned it in the Initial Phone Screens blog post, but let’s delve into the STAR interview method in a bit more depth.
The STAR interview method is a structured approach for crafting responses to behavioral interview questions.
It’s an acronym for Situation, Task, Action, Result.
The STAR framework helps candidates effectively communicate their past experiences and actions clearly and concisely in a way that communicates professionalism at interviews. Let’s break down each component:Situation:
Provide context and describe in detail a specific situation or scenario you faced.
This should take approximately 30 seconds and leave the interviewer with a crystal-clear picture of the interaction.Task:
This is the objective, challenge, or roadblock you faced.
It can be a task that needs to be accomplished or a problem that needs to be solved. Maybe it is a situation where you face unexpected obstacles or roadblocks.
Whatever the task at hand, make sure that the interviewer has no doubt as to what you were up against and were looking to accomplish.Action:
Here’s where you describe the actions you took to address the problem or task at hand.
Focus on what you did specifically, highlighting your individual contributions and skills.
Emphasize the steps you took and the strategies you implemented.Result:
A story is nothing without a neat resolution. Tie it all together with clear outcomes and results, detailing the positive impact of your efforts.
Elevate your answer with measurable outcomes, bringing any relevant facts and figures with you. Data can be a compelling storytelling tool, especially with leadership teams who are used to high level presentations with a lot of data.
Take it to the next level by exploring lessons learned and areas for improvement. It’s no coincidence that many behavioral interview questions end with “In retrospect, tell me what you would have done differently.”
Hiring teams want to understand how you think critically and reflect on your own work, so they can see how you’re always improving.Action Item: Go back, take a few example questions from the previous section and draw up some STAR format answers. The practice will pay off before an interview, I promise you.
If you're really struggling though, let's go through an example STAR format answer:
Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a dissatisfied customer. How did you resolve the situation? In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?
- Situation: I was assigned to a project with a long-time client. The team who was working with the client before I joined the project had a history of delivering excellent results, but recently the quality of work had slipped.
- Task: The client complained about the work with the executive leadership team, so I was tasked with coming in to help turn the project around.
- Action: I did extensive research on the client, reading through all the project notes and meeting with every consultant and customer success manager who contributed to this project over the past two years. From there, I sat down with our client point of contact and key technical contributors to understand how the project wasn’t meeting expectations.
- It became clear that our staffing had become lax and that the resources assigned to the project didn’t have the needed technical expertise to deliver. I brought internal stakeholders together and reconfigured the project team, onboarding a few new resources who were skilled in the areas the client required.
- By shifting the staffing and bringing on a strong technical lead (me), we were able to deliver the results the client expected from us.
- Result: We ended that engagement with a net promoter score (NPS) of 9, which means they are an active promoter of our company and work! They were so pleased with the work that they signed an additional $2m deal to continue our services into the following year.
- This project also prompted us to revisit how we were scoping and staffing projects, so that we could ensure that we didn’t mismatch resources and projects in the future.
Now that's how you answer an interview question!
As you can see in the example, the STAR method gives you a framework for providing structured, comprehensive responses to behavioral interview questions. Building your answers around STAR ensures that you address all aspects of the question and take the interviewer on the journey with you.
By presenting answers in this clear, concise, framework, you make it easy for interviewers to assess your behavior, problem-solving abilities, and suitability for the role based on concrete examples and results from your professional past.
The Lightning Round: Common Behavioral Interview Questions
We’ve already covered quite a few behavioral interview questions, but here’s one last bank of some of the most common behavioral interview questions.
Use the STAR model to sketch out your answers to ensure clarity and coherence in your answers:
- Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a dissatisfied customer. How did you resolve the situation? In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?
- Describe a situation where you had to work collaboratively with a difficult team member. What was your approach?
- Provide an example of a project or accomplishment that you're proud of. Walk me through it from initial ideation to final execution.
- Describe a situation where you had multiple projects or tasks with competing deadlines. How did you manage your time, set priorities, and ensure successful completion of everything?
- Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision with limited information. How did you approach the decision-making process? In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?
- Describe a situation where you had to adapt to a significant workplace change. How did you cope with the change and smooth the transition?
- Share an experience where you had to resolve a professional conflict. What steps did you take to find a resolution?
- Tell me about a time when you improved a process or implemented an innovative solution. What actions did you take? What was the result?
- Describe a situation where you had to work under pressure or meet a tight deadline. How did you handle the stress, and what was the outcome?
Another type of question sometimes paired with behavioral questioning (less often these days) are lateral thinking questions.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a very popular tactic in interviews was to surprise a candidate with an unusual or challenging interview question that had no clear 'correct' answer.
The purpose of these questions was to try and put the candidate on the backfoot and get them thinking under pressure, to see their thought process, creativity and ability to think on their feet.
Some famous examples were:
Why are manhole covers round?
The actual answer here is that they're round because they can't fall through the hole, whereas a square or other shape might be able to fall through if placed diagonally.
However, that's not what the question is asking you to do.
The question is designed to place you on the backfoot early and spark your lateral thinking process. Stay calm, think and explain your thinking out loud because that's what the interviewer is actually looking for here.
How many golf balls would fit in a schoolbus?
The actual answer (according to Wolfram Alpha) is 1.98 million, which seems like a lot.
But again, that's not what the question is asking for, the actual answer to the question is honestly the least important part of your reply.
The question is designed to present you with an unfamiliar problem you're very unlikely to have the proper calculations for, to test your problem-solving ability and how you approach confusing, unfamiliar situations.
Approximately how many gas stations are there in the United States?
These are my personal favorites, called Fermi problems.
Sure, you could Google the answer, but Fermi problems like this are designed to test your ability to think logically, work out what you do know and then develop a methodology for solving a problem with little to no actual data.
Again, remember that arriving at the correct answer is not the goal, here.
The goal is to demonstrate out loud that confronted with a thorny issue and little to no data, you at least will try to solve the problem in front of you in a sensible, logical manner.
How would you respond if you discovered a major security flaw in our system, but it's 5 minutes before you're due to leave for a two-week vacation?
This is the last type of curveball question often asked - the professional ethics and values question.
This type of question presents candidates with a two-pronged set of issues:
- How would you approach a situation like this?
- Are you obviously cooking up an answer that paints you in a good light, rather than the truth?
There really isn't a 'right' answer to a question like that - my advice here would be to tell the truth of what you'd actually do, because a good interviewer will sniff out if you're lying.
My personal answer here would be something like:"In an ideal situation, an effective succession plan is in place and I would clarify the situations, responsibilities and next steps with my delegate before leaving, because rest is what staves off long-term burnout and will allow me to freshly approach the recovery effort when I return."
If they push for an answer if there isn't a succession plan, I would tell the truth that I would personally still go on that vacation, I'm of no use to the company as a burnt-out husk.
If in doubt, tell the truth but don't volunteer any extra detail that could trip you up.
If you're confronted with questions like this, stay calm. Remember that the actual answer is the least important part of what you're being asked.
Reason logically, out loud and demonstrate that you're able to break down complex issues with a sensible, thought-out approach.
TL;DR / In Conclusion
While not quite as nerve-wracking as the technical interview, behavioral interview questions still have a way of making you freeze.
The best way to counteract the freeze is with the right mindset and some careful preparation!
- Behavioral interview questions are built on the idea that past performance is the best indicator of future performance.
- The questions are all about you, so while some answers are better than others, there is no wrong answer!
- Before interviewing, research a company’s values and brainstorm interview questions and stories from your past that demonstrate those values.
- Preparation is key- review common behavioral interview questions and use the STAR method to help formulate concise and powerful responses.
- Don’t forget post-interview follow-up from Hacking The Hiring Process:Technical Interviews and Questioning.
If you enjoyed this article, check out the other articles in the Hacking The Hiring Process series:
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Resumes
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Job Adverts, Specs & Red Flags
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Recruiters & Headhunters
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Initial Phone Screens
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Behavioural/Cultural Fit Interviews & Questioning
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Technical Interviews & Questioning
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Salary Expectations, Offers & Negotiation